Carnival History

A History of Carnival Compiled by Viv Wilson MBE

One of the earliest origins comes from Switzerland. Almost certainly predating Christianity, it is a festival linked to the beginning of spring, the intention that the carnival would scare away evil spirits.

In Catholic countries, the tradition of carnival is very old with festivals such as Saturnalia and Bacchanalia as origins of the Italian carnival.

The Greeks and Chinese have all played a part in this story and In America, the carnival season starts after Twelfth Night lasts through to Mardi gras. A small or non-permanent funfair is called a carnival. Most have amusements, rides and side shows. In some places, Twelfth Night celebrations include food traditions such as King Cake or Tortell.
Christian history shows that carnival was the last chance to use up foods such as meat, dairy foods, fats and sweetmeats before Lent – six weeks of fasting and other acts of piety leading up to Easter. Just before the 40 days of Lent began, an enormous party was held within the community – a chance to feast on the last delicious remnants.
In medieval times, pageants such as those marking Corpus Christie woven with folklore were a kind of early carnival. Masks, costumes and elaborate rituals have a place in this element of social history that reflects noisy mock rebellion and exceptional freedom as opposed to normal life. Such festivals were characterized by wanton raillery and unbridled freedom …. a temporary subversion of civil order.

The mythological and religious messages are not always clear but the tradition of following our forebears into High Jinks is being upheld.

Carnivals in Great Britain

In Britain, carnivals uphold old traditions in spite of significant social changes. Notting Hill’s August carnival, supposedly a celebration of the abolition of slavery, is thought to be the largest in the world. Bridgwater’s famous illuminated carnival staged every November is believed to be England’s oldest carnival and is supposed to be a celebration of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. It laid the foundation for other ‘illuminated’ carnivals.

Of the carnivals known today, many have their origins in Victorian times. On the Isle of Wight, Ryde is acknowledged as the second oldest in the country- even though it lays claim to being the oldest established carnival in England. Officially dating from 1888, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in the previous year marked the first carnival and torchlight procession. The next year, they gained royal patronage through an unscheduled appearance by Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice.
Shanklin followed suit in 1890 and Ventnor in 1891. Meanwhile, annual regattas were also becoming popular coastal events and in the years between the wars, such events staged across the country reached their zenith.

Teignmouth Carnival

Processions have formed part of the plans for marking any major event such as a coronation, the death of a National personage, and here, particularly, the opening of the railway in 1846. One of the most outstanding processions ever staged was on 14 September 1852 when Teignmouth finally managed to sever itself as a port from the Exeter overlords and become independent. People crowded into the resort to witness the event that began with a Royal Salute from the Den. A long collection of sailors, ships’ masters, fishermen, gardeners, harbour and river masters and music bands, horse drawn floats formed up behind a herald on a white horse and made an entire circumference of the Den. There were rope and sail makers, smiths at work with anvil and forge, coachbuilders, maltsters with barley, plasterers with models of villas, and builders and sawyers at work. Included in the procession was a model railway. Each man carried a tool of his trade. The whole of the town was decorated up and the display in front of Croydon’s library (WHS) was notable. Some 300 guests had dinner in the Assembly Rooms and the costs had been agreed to without dissent. It was, according to one reporter “the most gorgeous display witnessed in south Devon since the Reform Bill”. As it paraded through Teignmouth, almost everyone who was not taking part would have been cheering from the sidelines.

Another important year for Teignmouth was 1883, with the opening of two major buildings. Carnival-styled celebrations took place starting at 11am when the steam tug Pioneer fired 5 guns, following a peal from St James Bells. A procession set off from Lower Bitton to meet the Earl of Devon for the official opening of the Local Board Offices and Market Hall in Brunswick Street and round the corner, public baths built for £6,400. The procession included the Royal Prussian Band, the Oddfellows and the Foresters, all in full regalia, uniformed representatives of the Lifeboat crew, Volunteer Artillery and its band, the Fire Brigade, Devon Rifle Volunteers, and 9 official horse-drawn carriages. The procession met the train carrying the Earl who was presented with the keys to these impressive new buildings. After the speeches, prayers and songs, many partook of a buffet lunch.

After school, many children formed up as the St James drum and fife band and marched down to the hall, playing all the way, then had a splendid tea.

The new Local Board offices and Town hall destroyed in 1942 by the Germans. It took a handful of Hitler’s aircraft only seconds to destroy most of the building on 13 August 1942.

The Hospital connection

Almost 100 years ago, local people were exerting efforts into getting a new hospital built for Teignmouth. Up until then, they had survived with only an out-dated Infirmary on Dawlish Rd and the Isolation Hospital in Bitton Park. No National Health existed and the costs had to be raised by the public. Great energy was put into fund raising and photographs exist that show carnival-style floats bearing the banner Hospital Day dating from the 1920s. The Urban District Council gave permission annually for them to set up a small tent on the Den on one day each August.

Teignmouth Carnival in the 1920s & 1930s

Lots of people decorated their bicycles and even perambulators and entered as well-known characters. Local work horses, some of them Shires, owned by the council, businesses or farmers also took part in the procession.

Traders who owned motor vans loaded them with impressive displays of produce and advertising was certainly the name of the game. Entries were judged at Bitton before they wound their way slowly up Bitton Hill then down through Orchard Gardens and round the town, finishing up outside the Royal Hotel where dignitaries watched from the terrace.

Memories of Sheila Robbins nee Skinner

Sheila Robbins Nee Skinner won 3rd price in the Carnival Queen competition on 17 August 1939 – just 17 days before the outbreak of world war two. As the winner of the third prize, she became an attendant to the queen. In those days, local girls who entered the competition for becoming Teignmouth Carnival Queen had to assemble in the ballroom on Teignmouth Pier in front of a huge crowd. Following one behind the other, they paraded in a large circle round the floor to show off their deportment. They were then handed a sheet and had to read out whatever was printed on it to prove that their elocution was acceptable. A panel of judges decided on the winners and then made the presentations during an evening of festivity that is still remembered.
Sheila was later selected as Bishopsteignton’s Personality Queen

Teignmouth Carnival in the 1950s

After world war two, it was altered to Fourth Avenue. The chosen month was changed from August to July to fit in with other events. About 1954, Fourth Avenue tenants association did a float the procession. At that time, walking entrants waited in Hermosa Road and filtered in as the procession arrived. The judging of the carnival queen usually took place in Bitton House.

…….and the 1960s

The Carnival Queen worked herself into the position by selling raffle tickets for weeks leading up to the annual event which was then staged in the second week of August. Each ticket sold was regarded as a vote so those with the most votes would be the winner no matter how she looked, spoke or walked! The next two winners became the Queen’s attendants.
The committee numbered around 15 people who were very successful in persuading many local organizations to support the event in a variety of different ways. Their objective to provide as much fun as possible for all ages during Carnival Week and also raise funds for local charities. A public meeting was called in November and their year started in early December. The programme started on Monday and a huge marquee was set up on the Den. The queen crowning ceremony was performed by a minor celebrity who was usually appearing in the professional summer show in the Carlton Theatre. The Chairman of the council and other dignitaries was in attendance. The Rainbow Princess (child queen) was crowned by the new Queen and the trumpeters, pupils of Evelyn Hardy who ran her own all female dance band, would give a short concert. Archery demonstrations, included Tug o’ war, Crazy Football, camp fire and barbeque, a sing-song with a piano wheeled out on to the green. Keep Fit displays, bingo sessions, amateur boxing tournaments, baby shows and target bowls.

A highlight was the Carnival Ball attended by the “Royal Party” and a more significant celebrity. In 1968, it was ITV newscaster, Gordon Honeycombe who luckily was known by Douglas Mabon, Carnival Chairman and his wife Joyce who served on the committee.

TH Aggett who had served the committee for 25 years died in 1967 and a 15 inch tall silver cup in his memory was added to the trophy range. It was awarded to the most original trade entry in the procession.

The “Royal Party” and celebrity guest watched the procession from the steps of the Royal Hotel and it was all much more official and stage-managed at that time.

On the final night, those who had two shillings to spare bought a ticket and walked up Eastcliff to enter the grounds of Cliffden via the bottom gate. They shared in community singing with a local silver or brass band and thrilled at the grand firework display that rounded off a perfect week back there before Health & Safety made its presence felt. The Mystery Lady walked around during the week and, using your programme to identify her by her silhouette, there was chance to win a cash prize of £1.

Memories of Neta Drew

Neta Drew, undisputed queen of Teignmouth carnival, held the monochrome photo in her hand and smiled. That single facial gesture embodied a million memories of happy times past when that annual event was one of the main highlights of the year in Shaldon and Teignmouth. She remembers her Dad, Jack making the float’s lampshade with help from his friend who worked with him at the Teignmouth Electric Company. A few years earlier, Jack had met Vera Tapp whilst operating the lights in the Carlton Winter Gardens, where the Police Station now stands. She was pretty as a picture on stage as a member of Teignmouth Operatic Society. After their marriage and Neta’s arrival, the carnival bug took hold. Vera possessed broad design skills and although she was not by any means a dressmaker, she knew how to get the look she wanted. Neta looked forward to carnival all year and loved the fact that everyone mucked in to help get it ready. The worst part had to stand still for hours during costume fittings and being pricked often by stray pins. She’ll never forget the time when a darning needle was left in the costume by accident. The costumes that Neta wore were always eye-catching and suited to the float that was invariably swathed with yards and yards of crepe paper and material. It was the family’s one financial fling of the year and Neta’s grandmother always contributed generously to the costs even though she was not allowed to know anything about the float or its theme until carnival day. Every year, some wonderful new idea came to life and the theme in this photo was The Lady of the Lamp. Years passed, Neta married Ken and recruited his considerable abilities to the carnival scene. Neta’s brother Peter’s wife, Steve became the costume-maker supreme. “There was always a lot of laughter” said Neta who has continued her involvement with carnival by teaching movement and dance routines to various group entries. Whilst visiting Neta, at home in Shaldon, I was pleased to hear of son Michaels new life in Switzerland and meet her daughter Dawn who also shared in the family tradition and graced many floats in her young life before becoming an entertainer. The links of human activity, connecting time, place, family and friends, lie floating in the vast ocean of memory like a shining net, brimming with a cache of silvered treasures.

Teignmouth Carnival in the 1970s

By now the week had been moved forward to July, usually around the third week. Many of the same body of workers were still beavering away on the committee upholding the benefits of continuity that are hard to attain today. The programme offered Bingo, a fete by local charities, Police motor cycle precision riding team, a coffee morning for Guide Dogs for the Blind, a holiday service by the combined churches and music by Salvation Army band. Keep Fit displays, and the Army Careers Unit was popular with chance for youngsters to try various exciting equipment that would no longer be possible due to safety issues. In 1978, there was even a hockey match staged and the carnival dance was
held in the London hotel ballroom. A waiters and waitresses race copied from Torbay was held and a swimming gala for junior schools, Majorettes were now on the scene and Teignmouth Ladies Harmony Singers in their infancy performed in the marquee. The procession was headed up each year by Drum Major Bill Hooper riding a white horse named Carni and followed by the Lympstone marching band, Okehampton band, and the Wellington Red Arrow marching majorettes.
Television personalities were sometimes invited and the photograph shows Roger Shaw of Westward Television.
Prizes were presented on the seafront by the carnival queen. A mini rugby match was staged and even a mixed rugby match with ladies against gentlemen. The grand fete main prize was worth £10.

…….and the 1980s

In the 1980s and 90s, the procession assembled on Teignmouth Dock area and more recently, it began and ended round the Den area.

Large marching band displays took place on the Den and a travelling fairground has always been a traditional element. On procession night, a firework display has taken place off the seafront.

2000 & beyond

Thanks to the determination of many people, Teignmouth has managed to maintain its long tradition of carnival. In 2003, the first winter procession, The Amber Coast Illuminated carnival, was staged. The first two years attracted the big players in the south west including Bridgewater and South Brent who brought jaw-dropping floats calling for particular care in our narrow streets. It proved hard to maintain due to a number of reasons but those who witnessed the winter carnivals that took place here will undoubtedly remember them well.

Compiled by
VIV WILSON MBE of The Wilson Archive &
Heirloom Films of Teignmouth

Teignmouth books for sale direct from the author,
Viv Wilson
Email direct to
vivwilsonteignmouth@hotmail.co.uk